It’s not often that a program must replace a legend, but that’s what faces the 2014 Texas A&M Aggies.
This will be the first time A&M has competed in the Southeastern Conference without Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and one of the most exciting players in school history. The job for head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff is to prove that the Aggies can win in the nation’s toughest football conference without Manziel.
Sumlin seems to win, no matter the circumstances. He is 55-23 in six seasons as a head coach, including a 20-6 mark at A&M.
The Aggies return just 12 starters, so there will be plenty of new faces on the field when the season kicks off later this month.
The most obvious question is, who will replace Manziel behind center? Sumlin is not saying, at least not yet. The candidates are sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman Kyle Allen. Hill could provide the team with the dual threat dynamic, while Allen is more of a true pocket passer. Obviously, making the right decision here is huge for the 2014 campaign, and beyond.
Whoever the new quarterback is will benefit from the fact that four offensive line starters return this season. Left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, left guard Jarvis Harrison, center Mike Matthews and right tackle Germain Ifedi are all back, which should help the skill players develop.
The bad news for the A&M offense is that only one skill position starter returns. Replacing players like wide receivers Mike Evans and Travis Labhart, as well as running back Ben Malena, will be huge for the Aggies.
Wide receiver Malcome Kennedy is the only returning starter among skill players. Sumlin must fill in the other three receiver positions with some combination of LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Sabian Holmes, Speedy Noll, Edward Pope, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones.
At running back, A&M will likely use a committee to get the job done. Tra Carson, Brandon Williams and Trey Williams all saw action last season and should provide a solid running attack behind the experienced offensive line.
Seven starters return on the defensive side of the ball for the Aggies, and Sumlin hopes that this unit will be much improved. Last season, A&M was last in the SEC in total defense (476 yards per game) and scoring defense (32.2 points per game).
On the defensive line, Julien Obioha and Gavin Stansbury return at ends, and Alonzo Williams is back at tackle. Stansbury tied for the team lead with three sacks last season.
The weak spot on the defense might be the linebackers. There are no returning starters among this unit, although a pair of seniors will be among the rotation this fall. Seniors Donnie Baggs and Tommy Sanders should see plenty of time at outside linebacker, along with A.J. Hilliard and Shaan Washington. Inside, Jordan Mastrogiovanni could be the starter.
In the secondary, four starters return for A&M. Seniors Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven will start at the safety positions, while another senior, Deshazor Everett, will start at cornerback. De’Vante Harris, a junior, will be the other cornerback. Matthews led the team with three picks in 2013, while Harris is one of the best athletes on the team.
The new quarterback, whether it’s Hill or Allen, will get an immediate test as the Aggies open the season on the road against the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Home games against Lamar and Rice follow the opener. Then, the Aggies meet the SMU Mustangs in Dallas.
A&M will complete a run of eight straight weeks with no weekend off by visiting the Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa.
After that week off, the Aggies return to the field on November 1 as they host Louisiana-Monroe. On November 8, A&M visits the defending SEC Champions, the Auburn Tigers.
Any schedule in the SEC West will be tough, but A&M appears to have a very tough slate. The Aggies face three preseason top ten teams on the road (South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn). For a team with a new quarterback, this slate will be daunting.
Tim Letcher is a contributing writer for RantSports.com and a member of the Football Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter @TimLetcher , on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.